ASHLAND, Ore. – The Oregon Shakespeare Festival began in the 1930s as a strictly Shakespeare summer event. Over the decades it has expanded and branched out into a three-stage, year-round, $31 million annual operation that produces the Bard of Avon’s texts but also an array of younger plays for some 125,000 patrons.
Current artistic director Bill Rauch has devoted more OSF resources than his predecessors to the commissioning and developing of new works – like the 2012 award-winning Lyndon B. Johnson biodrama, “All the Way,” by Seattle author Robert Schenkkan.
So my journey to Ashland this year was timed to coincide with the openings of two world-premiere pieces, which I saw along with several classic works performed at the outdoor Elizabethan Stage and indoors in the Bowmer and Thomas theaters.
Here are my impressions of some of the 10 OSF shows on offer through the fall:
‘The Heart of Robin Hood’
The alleged exploits of the legendary bandit and his merry cohorts have sparked countless plays, films and, of course, that classic TV show with an infernally catchy theme song. (“Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen!”) This fresh portrait of the highwayman, written by David Farr for the Royal Shakespeare Company, puts a strong feminist twist on the Robin Hood lore. For one thing, this Robin (played by John Tufts) is a tough punk and not much of a hero. But the woman he reluctantly falls for, a cross-dressing and fearless Maid Marion, takes up the slack.
Furthermore, Kate Hurster’s gallant, wisecracking Marion turns the handsome but “emotionally unavailable” highwayman into a stand-up guy willing to share his plunder with the poor.
Hurster is a marvelous Marion, Michael Elich does his cackling best as arch-villain Prince John, and the action (including rope-swinging and ripping good swordplay) is great fun. Through Oct. 12. (Elizabethan Stage).
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
What if the mismatched young lovers in this wonderland Shakespeare comedy were students at a private parochial school? If their master, Theseus (Richard Howard) was a priest about to wed a nun, Hippolyta (Judith-Marie Bergan)? What if the giant video images projected onto the Elizabethan backdrop (a trend at OSF this season, and a dubious one) looked like oppressive floral wallpaper?
Good ideas collide with bad in Christopher Liam Moore’s bumpy update of Shakespeare’s evergreen romantic romp. It boasts child fairies garbed at first in drab camouflage. (Why do fairies, who can be invisible, need camouflage anyway?) And again, clowning ranges from annoying to mirthsome.
The show gets funnier and prettier as it goes along. Best: the Bard’s surefire set pieces of squabbling, infatuated teenagers (Christiana Clark impresses most, as the agonized fourth wheel Helena), and the riotous play-within-a-play starring stage-struck Nick Bottom (Brent Hinkley) and other local yokels. But this “Midsummer” doesn’t muster enough rough magic. Through Oct. 13 (Elizabethan Stage).
I’d say OSF went way out on a limb by engaging a five-man group of young music-theater experimenters from New York to concoct an offbeat musical in Ashland.
Happily, the risk has yielded the reward of a fresh, hip 90-minute riff that resonates as a starkly surreal dirge and a life-affirming blues.
Inspired by the haunting “The St. James Infirmary Blues,” the one-act fable conjures an enemy prison camp where several soldiers await execution. As his comrades are dragged off one by one, King Jesse (Jon Beavers) slips in and out of a pungent flashback. It takes him to a seamy shantytown tavern he and a former lover inherited, patronized by a circle of whimsical/clownish prostitutes, gamblers and hustlers, as a nameless illness (think: 1918 flu pandemic) decimates their community. The salty-sweet denizens of this funky joint are preyed upon by a devil doctor (Ramiz Monsef) – especially Rae (Kjerstine Rose Anderson), Jesse’s armless beloved.
Created by writer-actor-musicians Beavers, Monsef, Casey Hurt, Ian Merrigan with Kristoffer Diaz, and directed by Shana Cooper, “The Unfortunates” isn’t a well-made play but a fantastical fable saturated in American roots music – from old-time blues to modern-day hip-hop, performed live and well. Through Nov. 2 (Thomas Theatre).
Two esteemed OSF tragedians take turns playing the totemic role of a king who unwisely divests himself of a kingdom, losing his power but regaining his soul, in Bill Rauch’s crisp and affecting take on this Shakespeare masterwork.
Seattle-based Michael Winters trades off on the demanding lead role with Jack Willis. I saw Willis powerfully portray Lear as a once-robust, authoritarian monarch, keen to the ironies of power gained and lost as he is stripped of rank, respect – and, ultimately, the only one of his three daughters who truly loves him.
Rauch’s finely calibrated, uncluttered interpretation of “Lear” is a showcase for veteran OSF players who speak the verse with superior cogency and command.
Though this “King Lear” adopts modern dress, it sidesteps the gimmicky feel of some OSF takes on Shakespeare. Rather, it reminds us that seasoned classical actors, clearly expressing the dark humor, great pathos and rich poetry of one of the Bard’s finest texts, is gift enough. Through Nov. 3 (Thomas Theatre).
‘The Liquid Plain’
Naomi Wallace’s ambitious historical drama is a complex sea yarn of brutality, loss, love, revenge and redemption, in the context of the trans-Atlantic slave trade among Africa, England and the U.S.
This is heavy matter. And it lands heavily on the single set – a Rhode Island dock where a half-drowned, on-the-lam white sailor is discovered by a runaway black slave couple, planning to escape by ship to England.
The ensuing plot has more twisted knots than the netting that the ex-slave Adjua (compelling June Carryl) repairs for a living. There’s an unexpected pregnancy, the return of an allegedly drowned black sea captain, a knife attack by a jealous lover and more, in Act 1 alone.
The capable cast is burdened with a lot of talky exposition, and the play sometimes drowns in it. It’s hard to keep all the back stories straight (and those odd cameos by poet William Blake.) Most accessible and valuable are Wallace’s more poetic, reflective monologues and interactions, and Bristol’s touching epiphany to end a long cycle of violence. Through Nov. 3 (Thomas Theatre).